March 03, 2014

“It ain’t a fit night out for man or beast!”

I’ve posted this before but is seems worthy of reposting, since the quote involved is something many people might have been thinking on a lot of nights during the current harsh and snowy winter…

As a kid growing up in Ohio in the 1950s, I remember that on rainy or snowy nights my late father and his old Army buddies used to say to each other “It ain’t a fit night out for man or beast!”

Every time they said it, they’d laugh.

I’d laugh along, too. But I didn’t really know where they got the line or why it was funny to them until years later, when I saw the movie that popularized the line — The Fatal Glass of Beer, starring the great comic actor W.C. Fields.

This famous two-reel “short subject” was first released to movie theaters nationwide on March 3, 1933.

It was produced by Mack Sennett, the Canadian-born Hollywood mogul who produced many classic silent and early “talkie” comedies from 1911 until the mid-1930s, including the Keystone Cops films, and films by legendary comedians like Fields, Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle.

If you’ve seen The Fatal Glass of Beer then you know that the line “It ain’t a fit night out for man or beast” is used repeatedly in it for comic effect. (If you haven’t seen the film, you can watch it on YouTube and other sites.)

The film is set in the Yukon during winter. W.C. Fields plays a local prospector named Mr. Snavely, who lives in a remote, rustic cabin with his wife.

Six different times in the movie, Fields opens the cabin door, looks outside and intones: “It ain't a fit night out for man or beast.”

Every time he does, a fake gust of wind blows a fake cloud of snow into his face.

The audience can see that it’s obviously a bucketful of “snow” being thrown at Fields from off screen. It’s clearly hokey, as intended.

The Fatal Glass of Beer was a send-up of earlier, badly-produced films and vaudeville shows.

It also mocks the moralistic tone of some early movies and older anti-drinking temperance shows.

The title of the film comes from a fake temperance song Fields sings during the first few minutes, at the request of his friend, a local Canadian Mountie (played by Richard Cramer). Fields pulls out what the Mountie calls a “dulcimer” (actually a zither) and strums it, while wearing big furry mittens and singing off-key.

The song, credited to vaudeville comedian Charlie Case, tells the tale of a young country boy who goes to the big city and visits a bar, where a group of rowdy city boys talk him into drinking “the fatal glass of beer.”

That single drink immediately causes the poor boy to have delirium tremens, go wild and crazy and break a Salvation Army worker’s tambourine.

The moral of the song, as given in the lyrics: “Don’t go ‘round breaking people’s tambourines.”

Yes, the song and movie are as kooky as that sounds. It’s almost as surreal as a Monty Python skit.

The Fatal Glass of Beer wasn’t a big hit when it came out. But it eventually became a cult classic, giving my father and millions of other people a funny line to say when the weather is nasty.

By the way, Fields says “man or beast,” not “man nor beast.” The latter is a common misquote.

As I recall, my father said it correctly. I think he was as much of a W.C. Fields fan as I eventually turned out to be.

This one’s for you, Dad.

RELATED POST: “Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.”

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W.C. Fields – further reading, listening and viewing…

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